Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 4, An Influential Friendship

Ken Hedberg performing in “The Road to Stockholm: The Appalling Life of Linus Pauling,” December 1954. Hedberg and other Caltech colleagues sang and danced on stage to celebrate Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Chemistry Prize.

[Celebrating the life of Dr. Kenneth Hedberg (1920-2019), part 4 of 5.]

Though he left Caltech at the end of 1955, Ken Hedberg maintained a friendship with Linus Pauling that lasted for the rest of Pauling’s life. Despite their physical distance, the two kept an active correspondence and Pauling sometimes sent samples from his own research for Hedberg to run through his electron diffraction apparatus in Corvallis. Pauling also wrote multiple letters of recommendation in support of various fellowship applications submitted by his former student, frequently noting the many important contributions that Hedberg had made to the field of electron diffraction.


James Jensen, President of Oregon State University from 1961-1969.

Hedberg’s friendship with Pauling turned out to be especially fruitful for Oregon State University, because it was partially through his persistent efforts that the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers made their way to OSU.

The story begins in the early 1960s, when Hedberg was chatting with Ava Helen Pauling at a banquet where they happened to be seated next to each other. During the course of the conversation, Ava Helen revealed that she and her husband had been pondering the question of what to do with their papers when they died, noting that they had received expressions of interest from several universities and other institutions. Although OSU was not among those courting the Paulings, Ava Helen felt that their alma mater was the right home for the materials and had run this idea past her husband. Though Linus had been embroiled in a rift with the university for most of the 1950s (over the firing of his former student, Ralph Spitzer, on political grounds), Ava Helen was now trying to convince him to “let bygones be bygones” and renew his bond with Oregon State.

Ava Helen also confided that Pauling was not happy with offers that he had received from the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, Caltech, and many other highly-respected institutions, because they only wanted his papers and not hers, wanted to cherry pick the items that they would keep (Pauling wanted everything kept together), or wanted the papers right away, despite Pauling’s need to retain many of them for his ongoing research.

Hedberg was fully aware that, were OSU to be selected by Pauling as the repository for his papers, the announcement would serve as a major boost in prestige. He also understood that if Pauling’s bitterness against the university were to be assuaged, the conciliation would have to come from the university president. In short order, Hedberg wrote to OSU President James Jensen, stating that “…it seems to me that Pauling’s eminence in science and in world affairs together with his historical association with the State of Oregon and Oregon State University makes this a proper place for these papers.” He further suggested that if “…handled correctly, it might be possible for Oregon State to obtain these papers.”


Pauling’s split with Oregon State College came about as a direct result of actions taken by President August Strand, who led the institution from 1942 to 1961. His successor was James Jensen, who took over shortly after OSC became OSU, and it was under Jensen’s watch that the relationship with Pauling came to be repaired. Spurred by Hedberg’s note, Jensen wrote to Pauling lamenting the rift that had grown between him and the university, assuring him that he remained one of the university’s most beloved alumni, and concluding that

When it comes time to think of a repository for your letters and other documentary matters, I hope you will consider the possibilities of Oregon State University and its repository of important papers which is located within a stone’s throw of where you and Mrs. Pauling met!

Jensen also created a Distinguished Service Award in 1964 and made Pauling the first recipient.

Finally, in 1966, the president extended an invitation to Pauling to speak at the university, which was accepted. In December of that year, he delivered a well-attended convocation lecture titled “Science and the Future of Man” at Gill Coliseum. It was the first talk that he had given on the Oregon State campus since a 1937 lecture on hemoglobin and magnetism, which he had presented at the dedication ceremonies for the Oregon State chapter of the Sigma Xi scientific research honorary.

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With the ice finally broken, Pauling began returning to the university more frequently, eventually regaining his old affection for OSU and choosing to make trips to Corvallis whenever he was passing through the area. Pauling also admitted that he was “pleased” by OSU’s request for his papers, telling Jensen that in addition to OSU, he had offers in hand from the Library of Congress, the American Philosophical Society, and the University of Oregon, among others. As he continued to ponder the final home for his materials, he asked that Jensen have the university archivist send him a letter describing OSU’s archival facilities and the plans that it would put in place for the preservation and use of the papers.

In March 1967 Jensen again wrote to Pauling, this time including a draft donation agreement as well as the requested comments on facilities from the university archivist. By July, Pauling had largely been won over and claimed that he felt ready to begin giving his papers to the university. That said, he was as busy as ever and seemed reluctant to actually part with any of his material. His continuing research and trips to Europe, combined with disruptive California wildfires, meant that he never had time for OSU’s archivist to visit him to evaluate and organize the collection.


For whatever reason, Pauling continued the stall tactics for the remainder of Jensen’s tenure as president. In 1972, Hedberg wrote to Jensen’s successor, Robert MacVicar, to loop him in on the conversation. In addition to forwarding copies of past communications between himself, Jensen, and Pauling, Hedberg expressed his point of view that Jensen’s negotiations seemed to have been successful, but hastened to add that a final agreement was never reached. Jensen, sensing Pauling’s hesitation, had eventually stopped asking about the papers for fear of endangering the relationship that he had successfully rehabilitated.

Hedberg encouraged MacVicar to pick up where Jensen had left off in trying to obtain the papers. MacVicar took the suggestion to heart and contacted Pauling, but kept Hedberg in the loop since he knew Pauling so well. Over time, Hedberg was able to mediate communications somewhat, often advising MacVicar on how he thought Pauling might interpret different phrases of a draft letter and predicting how he would respond. Pauling still felt that he was not ready to part with the papers, so MacVicar followed Jensen’s precedent and focused on maintaining a good relationship with Pauling with the occasional gentle reminder about his promise to give his papers to OSU.

Activist Norman Cousins, Portland mayor Bud Clark, Linus Pauling and OSU President John Byrne at a celebration marking Pauling’s donation of his papers to Oregon State University.

Ava Helen passed away in 1981 and the next year Hedberg helped to found the Ava Helen Pauling Lectureship on World Peace at OSU. Meanwhile, in 1984 John Byrne replaced MacVicar as OSU president and, once again, Hedberg forwarded copies of past correspondence and encouraged the new president to continue the effort. Byrne saw that, while his predecessors had succeeded in winning Pauling over, their gentle reminders had done little to motivate Pauling to actually make the donation.

Byrne decided to change tactics by setting up a committee to handle the negotiations, from which emerged a concrete offer to build a Special Collections unit that would house and manage the donated materials. Byrne also agreed to all of Pauling’s requests regarding the treatment of the collection: namely, that Ava Helen’s papers be included in the acquisition, that the collection be kept intact, that the collection be made available for use by any qualified researcher, and that Pauling himself also receive unfettered access should he need to consult any of his old letters or manuscripts. Among these requests, the Ava Helen piece was likely the most significant; with her passing, it became particularly important to Pauling that her papers be treated with the same deference as his own.

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Hedberg and Pauling among others at an event celebrating the donation of the Pauling Papers to Oregon State University, April 1986.

At long last, on April 18, 1986, Pauling formally announced that he would be transferring his papers to the Oregon State University Libraries. The first item that Pauling sent to OSU was the three volume United Nations Bomb Test Petition, an encapsulation of the work for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963. Other materials were added gradually over the rest of his life, once he had decided that he did not need them for his current research activities. Eventually the university sent a representative to Deer Flat Ranch to see how big the Pauling collection was, and they found that he had over 90 filing cabinets full of materials just at his Big Sur home.


As Pauling made more frequent trips to Corvallis, Hedberg was usually assigned to act as his guide and chaperone. On one reminiscent wander around campus, Pauling pointed out to him the room in present-day Furman Hall where he first met Ava Helen. He also showed Hedberg the house on 15th street where he had lived as a student.

Frequently, the Hedbergs and the Paulings were participants in the same dinner parties, some of which were hosted by Ken and Lise. Pauling was fond of vodka and often favored a drink prior to attending a formal event; Ken always made sure that Pauling’s preferred brand was in the cabinet. Another time, at a dinner party hosted by the Hedbergs, Pauling recognized the wine that they served as being of the same vintage as that served at a similar party the previous year. Hedberg was shocked that, of all the dinner parties and events that Pauling attended, he would remember the wine that had been served at a particular gathering a year prior.

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Ken Hedberg, David Shoemaker and Lise Hedberg at a dinner party hosted by OSU President John Byrne, 1991. Linus Pauling was seated across the table from Ken Hedberg.

Though they saw one another with some frequency, Pauling and Hedberg continued to make time to provide updates on their lives through correspondence. Pauling wrote to Hedberg about his own rectal cancer, and Hedberg asked Pauling for advice concerning a friend’s inoperable cancer and for managing Lise’s arthritis. Ken also shared the unhappy news when their mutual colleague, David Shoemaker, died of complications related to kidney disease. Ken likewise expressed his frustrations to Pauling when the National Science Foundation reduced his grant funding in 1992 due to concerns about his age.

Political and social issues also frequently came up in Pauling and Hedberg’s communications, and the two friends tended to share a similar mindset on the issues of the day. Like Pauling, Hedberg was firmly opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and, following a 1961 visit to Hiroshima, wrote that “…I believe world peace could be assured by simply escorting the world’s political leaders through the park and museum.” In a different letter written that same year, Hedberg confided that

Lise and I…were utterly dismayed at the resumption of nuclear testing. Most of us feel that the fallout problem is bad enough, but what really frightens is the return to the mailed fist kind of diplomacy they represent… I’m quite convinced that the world is controlled by people gone mad. My more optimistic friends aren’t so worried – ‘after all, another world war is unthinkable.’ What impresses me over and over, though, is how full of irrational people the world is, how singularly alike in some respects the opinions of such people are, and how easily national attitudes seem to be born of such opinions… Most people seem unable to comprehend that the ancient techniques of enforcing national interests on an international scale will lead only to their destruction. Perhaps a part of this is due, at least on the local scene, to what people imagine death to be like. Corvallis is a religious town, and as one of my physicist friends put it, ‘most people here feel that death is a new experience, rather than what it is – the complete absence of experience for all eternity.’


Hedberg retired from OSU in 1987, a moment that prompted a letter of congratulations from his friend and former mentor. In it, Pauling confessed that “I remember you, Ken, as one of my favorite graduate students in the California Institute of Technology.” Once his retirement festivities were completed, Hedberg penned a note of gratitude in response.

I think this is also the time for me to tell you how much I have appreciated your help and support during my professional career. You’ve written many recommendations on my behalf without which my life would have been totally different. It would have been nearly impossible to build my laboratory without help from the Research Corp., the Sloan Foundation, and others, to which you sent words on my behalf. Perhaps you are even responsible for Lise’s entering my life – without my Guggenheim to Norway we would never have met! And lastly, you are surely responsible for my accepting a position here at Oregon State. You encouraged me to accept the job, and apart from problems at the start, Lise and I have been very happy here.

Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 3, On Faculty at Oregon State

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Ken Hedberg, a colleague, and the Hedberg electron diffraction apparatus, 1960.

[Kenneth W. Hedberg (1920-2019) in memorium, part 3 of 5.]

Ken and Lise Hedberg, along with their three-month old son Erik, moved back to Corvallis in January 1956 during a heavy storm. As the couple approached their final destination, Hedberg remembers water reaching almost to the hubcaps of their car. When they finally did make it to Corvallis, the city was largely flooded for the next couple of days.

In a turn of events that fit well with the dreary weather, on Ken’s first day of work at Oregon State College he learned that, in addition to his supervisory responsibilities, he would also be teaching a graduate-level physical chemistry course. The class was scheduled to meet three hours a week and he had been given no time at all to prepare lecture notes. Hedberg ultimately made it through the term, during which he tracked the time that he had spent on teaching-related activities. Including office hours and lesson planning, and found that he averaged 56 hours per week just on his instructional work.

At the same time, Ken was also tasked with getting his research program running. The first step in doing so entailed designing and building an electron diffraction apparatus for which he had received a $30,000 grant. He made an arrangement with the Physics workshop on campus to have the machine constructed, overseeing the process from start to finish. The device took several years to complete, but it worked well and has been used to significant effect for more than fifty-five years. Indeed, Linus Pauling was one of many colleagues from around the world to run samples through the instrument.


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When it was built, Hedberg’s gas phase electron diffraction apparatus was state of the art, and during most of his career there were only two laboratories in the U.S. that could perform similar work. As time moved forward and other techniques were developed, gas phase electron diffraction fell out of view for many scientists, thus rendering Hedberg’s lab even more valuable for those who wished to employ the methodology in their advancement of basic science. As a result, Hedberg rarely encountered difficulty in acquiring grant support. His position as a hub for electron diffraction research also led to his making and maintaining a vast number of friendships with scientists across the globe.

The electron diffraction unit that Hedberg built utilizes a nozzle to release gas-phase samples in a stream that runs perpendicular to a vertical beam of electrons. The collision that ensues scatters the electron beam and results in a diffraction pattern that is subsequently recorded on a photographic plate fixed at the bottom of the device. These diffraction patterns are then analyzed to determine specific characteristics of the sample in question. It only takes a few minutes to run a sample, so lots of substances can be run in a day, but the analysis takes much longer — elucidating molecular structures from diffraction patterns is a complicated process.

Another hurdle that Hedberg sometimes faced was transforming particular substances into a gas phase in order to enable this type of analysis in the first place. One notable example was C60, which needs to be heated to 800°C to obtain any kind of vapor. Another instance was N2O4, which degrades to NO2 very rapidly as temperature and pressure increase. Nobody knew for sure if it was even possible to run gas phase electron diffraction analysis on these two substances but, in both instances, Hedberg and his team found a way to create the sample and collect the data.


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David and Clara Shoemaker analyzing diffractometer data, 1983

A few months after he had arrived back in Corvallis, Hedberg wrote to Pauling to provide an update on how he was settling in. He reported that, as expected, he and Lise both liked Oregon a lot, and that Erik was growing very fast and had learned a few Norwegian words. He also let Pauling know that his picture was on display in the Memorial Union, one in a series featuring distinguished alumni of the college.

Ken’s correspondence with old Caltech colleagues was certainly not limited to Pauling and, in one particular instance, Hedberg’s connections played a key role in shaping the Chemistry department at Oregon State. When the chair’s position in Chemistry opened up in the late 1960s, Hedberg encouraged his former Caltech office-mate, David Shoemaker, to consider the opportunity. Shoemaker was then on faculty at MIT but he had ties to the west and was open to the idea of returning to that side of the country. He and his wife, Clara Brink Shoemaker, were both distinguished crystallographers, and one of David’s conditions for coming to OSU was that Clara be offered a research position as well.

This condition presented a bit of a problem due to a Depression-era anti-nepotism law that prevented members of the same family from being employed in the same department, except under unusual circumstances. Ken and Lise Hedberg had been able to work together because OSU’s president, Robert MacVicar, good-naturedly regarded a husband-wife scientific team to be an “unusual circumstance.” He allowed the Shoemakers to use the same loophole with one stipulation: officially, Hedberg was to serve as Clara’s supervisor and Shoemaker as Lise’s. This arrangement stood as a running joke between the two couples for several years until the rules were ultimately relaxed.


Three years after he came back to Oregon State, Hedberg was moved into the physical chemistry division of the Chemistry department. With that change, Ken still taught general chemistry and took up new courses in physical chemistry, but was no longer responsible for supervising the department’s graduate teaching assistants. His teaching load remained heavy for a while as he prepared lecture notes for his new classes, but eventually he settled into a more manageable routine. When he finally achieved that balance, Oregon State revealed itself to be a very comfortable place. The Chemistry department was cohesive and friendly, dinner parties and holiday gatherings were common within the faculty, and the competitive divisiveness that often plagues academic units was refreshingly lacking.

Meanwhile, life continued to evolve for Lise as well. During their years together in Pasadena, the Hedbergs had worked as a team on a variety of electron diffraction projects. And although Lise wanted to continue her work at Oregon State, she was unable to for the first few years because she needed to care for young Erik. Their daughter, Anne Katherine – known as Katrina – was born a couple of years after the move to Corvallis, thus further extending Lise’s stay-at-home period.

At long last, when the kids were finally old enough to go to school, Lise would drop them off in the mornings, head over to the university to work in the lab, and then pick them up at the end of the school day. Later, when they were old enough to get to school on their own, she would watch them leave the house and then be home in time to meet them in the afternoons. According to Ken, it took a while for the Hedberg children to realize that their mother worked out of the home, because she was always there when they left and waiting when they got back.


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Wine tasting with Kolbjörn Hagen in 2008

In a 2011 oral history interview, Hedberg identified his proudest accomplishment as having overcome his humble beginnings to live a happy, successful life. In offering these reflections, he was quick to point out several moments where small twists of fortune made a dramatic impact on the trajectory of his life. Chief among these was his fateful late fellowship application that ultimately led to him going to Norway instead of Belgium. He mused that if he had submitted the first application on time, he would never have met Lise nor had any of the professional and personal affiliations in Norway that he enjoyed throughout his life.

Indeed, Norway was a critical component of Hedberg’s journey, both personal and scientific. Over the years, the Hedbergs returned to the country numerous times on sabbatical and research trips, and also to visit Lise’s family. The scientific work that they conducted during these visits ultimately led to numerous decorations for Ken. By the end of this life, he had received an honorary degree from the University of Trondheim – offered for “more than 40 years in collaboration with scientists from Japan, Germany, Norway, New Zealand, Great Britain, Hungary, Austria and China” – and been inducted into the Norwegian Academy of Sciences. One one occasion, Hedberg met the Norwegian king at a banquet and spent much of the evening talking with Crown Prince Harald.

Likewise, many of the students with whom he worked in the Oslo and Trondheim electron diffraction labs made their own visits to Corvallis to collaborate with Ken. One of these individuals, Kolbjörn Hagen, emerged as an especially important research colleague, as well as a dear friend.

Collaboration was a fundamental component of Hedberg’s approach to science, and throughout the years his most important scientific colleague was Lise, an expert computer programmer. While Ken took the lead in experimentation and analysis of diffraction patterns, it was Lise who wrote or tweaked many of the programs that the Hedbergs used in their work. In a letter that David Shoemaker wrote to OSU’s Dean of Science, he noted that the Hedberg lab contained a library of computer programs unmatched by any other lab of its kind, due to Lise’s expertise. Shoemaker also wrote that

…Professor Hedberg has more understanding of the nature of chemical bonding in molecules than any other person in the Chemistry Department or on the Oregon State University campus. Perhaps one can even include all of Oregon, except when Linus Pauling is visiting.

The Hedbergs’ son Erik was also handy with computers and often helped his parents manage their programs. The family published two papers together – one by Ken, Lise, and Erik, and one by Ken, Lise, and Katrina – and the authorship shorthand of “Hedberg, Hedberg and Hedberg” was a source of continuing delight for Ken.


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In 1983 Ken notified Shoemaker that, after twenty-seven years on faculty, he felt ready to retire, which he did officially in 1987. Hedberg’s primary motivation for this change was to free himself from his teaching burden, but he had no intention of stopping his research.

A few years into his so-called “retirement,” Hedberg wrote to Pauling to provide an update on his life. Amidst news about family, travel and tennis, he noted with glee the enjoyment that he was experiencing in being able to work 12-hour days in his lab. This remained the pattern of Hedberg’s life for another thirty years, a run of time marked by steady grant funding, continuing research, collaboration with faculty colleagues, supervision of graduate students, and mentorship of OSU undergraduates several decades his junior.

 

Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 1, Early Years

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[Ed Note: Today we mark the 118th anniversary of Linus Pauling’s birth by hitting the pause button on our Pauling as Administrator series and celebrating the life of Dr. Ken Hedberg, a friend to Pauling and many others. An accomplished structural chemist, a student of Pauling’s, and an Oregon Stater through and through, Ken passed away on January 5, 2019, a month shy of his 99th birthday. This is part 1 of 5.]

Kenneth Wayne Hedberg was born in Portland, Oregon on February 2, 1920. He had one sister who was two and half years younger than himself. His family moved to the Coos Bay region when he was six years old, then to Hoquiam, Washington when he was 12 years old, and finally to Medford, Oregon when he was 16 years old; he finished high school there.

Ken’s mother was a housewife who worked at a naval station in Astoria, Oregon during World War II. His father was a wholesale grocery salesman for a company called Mason-Erhman. His work required him to travel to the company’s storefronts around the state to take grocery orders, which he then transmitted to warehouses for delivery the next morning. Ken sometimes accompanied his father on his routes, but he found the work boring. The Hedberg family was close and often played cards together in the evenings and on the weekends, and also went to movies and listened to radio shows together. Ken also enjoyed physical activity, playing on the tennis team in high school and lettering on the varsity squad while an undergraduate at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University). As a child, he also played touch football with the other kids from his neighborhood and collected stamps as a hobby.

Academically, Hedberg was very successful from the outset and skipped a couple of grades during his grammar school years. And though he always did well in his science courses, it took a little while for him to realize that he wanted to pursue science as a career. In an oral history interview conducted in 2011, he recalled that

My real interest in science developed…but it wasn’t clear to me that I was going to be a scientist as a professional. And through high school and so on, science was easy for me, both physics and chemistry…there were a number of people who always came to me with questions about science. We didn’t have homework in the same way then but it seemed to come so easily to me that I didn’t have much trouble answering the questions.


Ken graduated from high school in 1937 – the height of the Great Depression – and found work picking pears in the nearby orchards. His real ambition though was to attend college. Neither of his parents had gone – his father stopped attending school after eighth grade and his mother finished high school but did not continue on to university. Both of Ken’s parents wanted their children to have that opportunity, but money was tight.

Despite the financial roadblocks, Hedberg did not give up on the idea of a college education. As he thought more about it, he decided that he would pursue science, but was unsure about whether to choose physics or chemistry. To solve that difficulty, he wandered into the public library one day and checked out some books on physics and chemistry that went beyond what he had been taught in school so that he could get a clearer picture of the types of research questions and methods that characterized each discipline. Based on his reading, he decided that the research opportunities available in chemistry appealed to him more than physics.

In 1939 Hedberg’s father lost his job and the family found itself in dire financial straits. His father moved to Portland to try to find work and sent what little money he earned back to the family in Medford. Hedberg later recalled that

…we were enough destitute that the power company turned off all the electricity so that we cooked with a stove with some wood and we had a camping lantern that we used in the evening. We managed to avoid getting thrown out of the house, which was a rental in Medford, but just barely.

Somehow, in the midst of this extreme hardship, Hedberg’s mother scraped together enough money to enable Ken’s registration at Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University). He lived at home and caught a ride each morning with a friend to the neighboring city of Ashland, which was home to the college. He took mostly science and music classes during this time period.

The family chose not to tell Ken’s father that he had started school, out of fear that the news might anger him. But as Hedberg later recalled, these fears proved unwarranted.

My father told me that somebody in Portland had said ‘you know there was a guy, Kenneth Hedberg, I noticed he got all A’s at Southern Oregon Normal, is that your son?’ My father knew nothing about this and I guess my mom didn’t want to tell him that we had found money to send me to college… So he said ‘no that can’t be my son’ and when it turned out that it was, he was not angry; he was delighted actually.

Buoyed by his dad’s approval, Hedberg stayed on at Southern for another term and continued to excel in his courses.


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Ken Hedberg (back row, second from left) posing with his OSC varsity tennis teammates, 1941.

In the spring of 1939, Ken’s father found a job in Astoria and Hedberg transferred to Oregon State College in Corvallis, Oregon, where his younger sister was also starting school. Their mother moved to Corvallis with them in order to provide support. Notably, she bought a house where the three of them lived, and she rented out its extra rooms to help pay the bills. Hedberg was also awarded a full-ride scholarship by OSC and was able to land a student job in the Chemistry department supply room.

By 1940, Hedberg had pledged a fraternity – Theta Chi – and his sister moved into a co-op affiliated with the university. Confident in the security of her childrens’ positions, Ken’s mother closed down the boarding house and joined her husband in Astoria. Reflecting back on his first year in Corvallis, Ken paid homage to his mother’s contributions, noting that

At the time I didn’t realize what a sacrifice that was, but as time has gone on, I can see what a monumental contribution that was because I wouldn’t have been able to go to Oregon State at all [without it].

The switch to OSC was also a source of some initial culture shock, in part because Southern Oregon Normal did not offer a degree in chemistry. While in Ashland, Hedberg had only been able to take one elementary chemistry course that was taught by a non-chemist — a classmate recalled that Hedberg knew more chemistry than the professor did. In contrast, Ken’s first chemistry class at OSC was analytical chemistry and he got a C on the first exam, but worked hard to ultimately pull a B overall.

Once he became accustomed to the culture and academic rigor of a college chemistry program, Ken did very well academically and particularly enjoyed the smaller class sizes and increased interaction between students and faculty offered by OSC. He eventually became a member of the Pi Mu Epsilon national honor society in mathematics, as well as the Phi Lambda Upsilon honor society in chemistry. His student job in the chemistry lab stock room was also a source of satisfaction. Students who needed equipment for lab classes could check out materials by filling out a sheet indicating what they needed. Ken would then go in the back and collect the items, reshelving them when the students were done.

Social life was central to Hedberg’s OSC experience, particularly dances and formal events hosted by the college’s fraternities and sororities. One regular happening was a “nickel hop,” wherein all of the school’s sororities would move the furniture out of their living rooms so that male OSC students could move from house to house, paying a nickel to dance with the girls from that sorority. These were heavily chaperoned and dry events. Indeed, alcohol consumption played little part in campus life at that time, as the city had mandated that no alcohol retailer could operate an outlet within two miles of campus.


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OSC professor Joseph P. Mehlig.

When asked to identify professors at OSC whom he considered influential to his development as a chemist and the path that he followed, Hedberg identified J.P. Mehlig, James W. Ferguson, and Bert Christensen. Mehlig was an analytical chemist who taught the first chemistry course that Hedberg took at OSC. (the one that he got a B in) Mehlig’s precision in every aspect of his life was renowned, even spawning a legend that one could set a wristwatch by Mehlig’s arrival at the “Chem Shack” – as the chemistry building was known at the time – at precisely the same time every morning. A further tale had it that Mehlig’s life was turned upside down when, during the war years, he could not buy tires for his car on the precise front-back alternating schedule to which he had grown accustomed.

Ferguson was an organic chemist who left OSC during the war years, but whom Hedberg considered to be a superb teacher. Christensen was department chairman after Hedberg joined the faculty at OSC, and Hedberg credited him with facilitating research during a period when federal grants were scarce.

It was with Christensen that Hedberg had first research experience. While still an undergraduate, Christensen enlisted Hedberg’s help with a project on the micro-determination of hydroxyl groups, an analytical technique that utilizes a sample of microbalances to determine molecular composition. The duo published their findings together – Hedberg’s first article – and the Shell Development Company, a major research laboratory and Ken’s future employer, later used their method to good effect, a source of continuing pride for Hedberg.


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Hedberg’s 1942 yearbook portrait.

World War II broke out during Hedberg’s undergraduate years at OSC and, as a science major, Ken was deferred from the draft until after his graduation. In reflecting on that period, Ken recalled that “…campus was pervaded by a sense of what was going to be happening to almost everybody, the men on campus.”

As Hedberg neared the conclusion of his studies in late 1943, he found that he had two choices: seek out a job doing war work within the chemical industry or join the Air Force and pursue meteorology or armaments (he could not fly because of poor visual acuity). While he was wrestling with this decision, Shell Development Company offered Ken a job, an opportunity that his faculty mentors encouraged him to accept. He decided to follow this advice, graduated from OSC in December 1943, and subsequently married a fellow OSC graduate, Jean Read.

Ken remained on 1-A status throughout the war, which meant that he was eligible for the draft, but Shell appealed five separate times and eventually got him reclassified as deferred status 2-B, on the grounds that he was doing scientific war work. In 1945, near the end of the war, he narrowly missed being included in an occupation draft group because had recently turned 26, and no one over 25 was eligible.


During his years at Shell Development Company, Hedberg worked on a few research projects that were central to the war effort, including the development of synthetic rubber. Rubber was integral to the production of military technologies like gas masks, tanks, military vehicles, and fighter jets. The need for synthetics was magnified by the fact that Japanese forces controlled most of the plantations where rubber trees were grown, causing a shortage of natural rubber in the Allied countries. Hedberg also worked to streamline the process by which penicillin is extracted from its growth medium so that it could be produced more efficiently for use in military hospitals.

The project that Hedberg was most interested in was the development of an aviation gasoline inhibitor. Aircraft during the Second World War ran on high-octane fuel, which, if stored for extended periods of time, tended to develop a gummy substance that could damage their engines. Since tanks of fuel needed to be stored in the desert for the North African campaign, this gum formation emerged as a major problem for the military. The solution that they had in hand was a red dye additive that would occlude and color the fuel if it began to degrade, such that problematic barrels could be more easily identified and used for purposes where the gum would not cause issues. Unfortunately, in the heat of the North African desert, the red dye revealed a tendency to occlude before the fuel had begun to deteriorate, resulting in good barrels being wasted.

Hedberg’s team worked on a project to develop a special inhibitor that would delay the fuel deterioration process. The group also researched the ways in which different weather conditions affected the condition of the fuel and the behavior of the dye, in order to predict how long the fuel could be expected to last in any given environment.


Hedberg spent three years working for Shell, but opted for graduate school once the war came to an end. Having been accepted by both Harvard and Caltech, Hedberg sought out the advice of his Shell lab supervisor, Dan Luten, to determine how the two departments stacked up. “Caltech has got Linus Pauling,” Hedberg remembers saying, “who else do they have on staff?”

In a response that stuck with Hedberg for the rest of his life, Luten told him, “Look, with Linus Pauling they don’t need anybody else.” Hedberg had already been leaning toward Caltech because it was closer to home and he preferred the warm California climate over New England. With Luten’s firm endorsement registered, he made up his mind and accepted the offer at Caltech.

Pauling’s OSAC Honorary Doctorate

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Linus Pauling at Oregon State Agricultural College in June 1933. The 1933 commencement program stated that Pauling was “now acclaimed among the distinguished scientists of our time.” Included in the photograph (left to right) are Dr. Marvin Gordon Neale, Commencement speaker; David C. Henny, honorary degree recipient; Pauling; Dr. William J. Kerr, Chancellor of the Oregon State System of Higher Education and OSAC president from 1907-1932; and Charles A. Howard, honorary degree recipient.

[Ed Note: This weekend is commencement weekend at Oregon State University, and to mark the occasion we thought we would look back at Graduation Day 1933 at Oregon State Agricultural College, a commencement exercise distinguished by Linus Pauling’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from his undergraduate alma mater.]

The early years of Linus Pauling’s academic career were marked by a dizzying array of accomplishments. Offered an assistant professorship by Caltech at the conclusion of his graduate studies in 1927, he was promoted to full professor just four years later. And by 1933, he oversaw twice as many graduate students and post-doctoral fellows as any other professor at the Institute.

His Caltech salary also increased substantially during this time, the result of his having received numerous offers from other institutions trying to pry him away from Pasadena. Since he was usually asked to teach only one seminar per term, he was also left with plenty of time to conduct research, often as a visiting professor at nearby universities.

Perhaps most notably, he had also won the first ever Langmuir Award, granted in 1931 for his research in structural chemistry. A.C. Langmuir, the brother of Nobel chemist Irving Langmuir, established the award for “outstanding chemical research,” defined to be work of unique merit conducted by an individual in the beginning stages of their career. In granting the award to Pauling, A.C. Langmuir recognized Pauling to be a rising star and predicted that he would one day win the Nobel Prize. In many respects, the award launched Pauling into the public eye.

Around this time, Pauling gave a seminar at Caltech on the quantum mechanics of the chemical bond that famously baffled Albert Einstein, who was in attendance. Not long after, Pauling became the youngest individual ever invited to join the National Academy of Sciences. It is no wonder then that Caltech’s chemistry chief A.A. Noyes remarked that Pauling was “the most promising young man with whom I have had contact in my many years of teaching.”


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Pasadena Post, September 27, 1933

Where Pauling’s talent was coming to the attention of the broader scientific community in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Oregon State Agricultural College had recognized Pauling’s potential much earlier, during his years as an undergraduate. In May 1933, perhaps seeking to strike while the iron was hot, OSAC sent Pauling a telegram offering him an honorary doctorate of science, which would be his first. Despite the short notice, Pauling promptly and eagerly agreed to be present for the commencement ceremony, which would take place on June 5, 1933. Not long after, he hopped in his car and drove from Pasadena to Corvallis to partake in alumni events scheduled for the preceding weekend.

Recent changes at Pauling’s alma mater made this honorary degree all the more impressive. In 1932, the Oregon State Board of Higher Education established what was then called the Oregon State System of Higher Education to manage the affairs of colleges and universities in Oregon, an arrangement that remained in place for more than eighty years. Oregon State president William Jasper Kerr subsequently became the first chancellor of the system.

Over time, Oregon State University has both decentralized and simplified the process by which it decides to award honorary doctorates. In contrast, the decision to award Pauling his doctorate required the agreement of numerous individuals from the top of the system on down. Specifically, Pauling was recommended by the state system’s administrative council, approved by Chancellor Kerr, and endorsed by the board of higher education.


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Pauling was one of three alumni to receive an honorary degree from Oregon State Agricultural College that year. The others were David C. Henry, a consulting engineer in Portland who received his honorary doctorate of Engineering, and Charles Howard, the state superintendent of public institutions in Oregon, who received an honorary Doctorate of Education. Dr. Marvin Gorden Neale, president of the University of Idaho, gave the commencement address that afternoon. In his speech, delivered in the early years of the Depression, Neale spoke of the need to fight against critics of the education system and to work to insure that support for land grant colleges and universities didn’t slip away.

When the moment came to introduce Linus Pauling, William Jasper Kerr listed off a string of accomplishments amassed since Pauling’s 1922 graduation from Oregon Agricultural College. In addition to the Languir Prize and the National Academy of Sciences admission, Kerr also emphasized Pauling’s achievements during his two years as a Guggenheim fellow, his authorship of over fifty scientific articles, and his appointment as a full-time professor at Caltech.


The evening report published in the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper leaned heavily on Pauling’s local roots and agreed with others’ assessment that Pauling’s future was bright. The paper also reported that 486 degrees were conferred at the 1933 commencement: 418 bachelor’s degrees, 52 graduate degrees, and 13 pharmaceutical chemistry diplomas.

OSAC Executive Secretary W. A. Jensen wrote to Pauling following the ceremony to confide that his award had been one of the most heartily endorsed doctorates he could remember. He also conveyed the encouragement and approval of Pauling’s burgeoning career that had been relayed by many on campus. Jensen concluded his memo with an increasingly common idea: “The Nobel Prize is just ahead!”

When Science published news of Pauling’s accomplishment, Fred Allen, another Oregon State alumnus, wrote Pauling to congratulate him. In his letter, Allen joked

I am proud that our alma mater could break away from the precedent which has stumbling over one’s beard a prerequisite to an honorary degree.

Indeed, Pauling was only 32 when awarded his first honorary doctorate, just eleven years removed from his undergraduate program. The two other recipients of honorary degrees at the 1933 graduation ceremony were decades older than Pauling.

Pauling would ultimately accumulate 47 honorary degrees over the course of his lifetime. For a man of such decoration, it would seem fitting that his first honorary degree came from his alma mater, a school that encouraged his passion for science well before he became nationally recognized. The honor captured an important moment in Pauling’s career and provided a glimpse of what was to come.

A Lecture Interrupted and a Campus Torn Apart

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[Part 2 of 2]

The Oregon State University Black Student Union’s (BSU) decision to interrupt a convocation featuring Linus Pauling and to stage a subsequent walkout off of campus were sparked by an incident involving an African American student athlete at OSU. As documented in multiple later accounts, on February 22, 1969 OSU football player Fred Milton broke team rules by refusing to shave his goatee.  Although this conflict occurred during the off-season, Oregon State football coach Dee Andros – an ex-Marine affectionately known as “The Great Pumpkin” – believed that he still maintained authority over his players and their appearance.  Andros gave Milton a forty-eight hour deadline to comply with the team rule. If he continued to resist, he would be cut from the team, which would mean he would also lose his OSU scholarship.

The BSU took on Milton’s cause and began planning peaceful measures to publicly express their solidarity and to bring awareness to the struggles that African American students were facing on the OSU campus. The actions that they agreed to put in play included a sit-in at a public event, a class boycott, and a campus walkout. The group also began publishing an underground newspaper, The Scab Sheet, which they viewed to be an important alternative to the OSU Daily Barometer, the student daily that had assumed an editorial stance favorable to Andros’ perspective.

The BSU believed the Milton case to be an infringement of a student’s rights to individual self-expression.  The group also pointed out that this was not the first black student athlete who had come into conflict with Andros’ policies; in the past, others had been told to keep their hair short and to not wear medallions.  BSU President Mike Smith explained that, although the policies were extended across the athletic department, they were based on standards set by white society, and that black student athletes were pressured to conform to them.

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OSU football coach Dee Andros holding telegrams of support, March 1969.

The first of the BSU’s peaceful protest actions began with a sit-in at a campus lecture, which was to be given by Linus Pauling on the morning of February 25, 1969.  The speech, titled “Advancement of Knowledge: Ortho-Molecular Psychiatry,” was one of seven presentations scheduled over three days as part of the OSU centenary celebration. The series celebrated the first hundred years of Oregon State by looking toward the future with a general theme of “The Second Hundred Years.” To encourage campus participation, the university cancelled all classes that conflicted with the seven presentations.  The formal lectures were to be followed by a discussion period in which students would be given the opportunity to dialogue with each of the invited speakers.

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Pauling’s speech is interrupted during his introduction. Pauling, seated, is obscured at right by the state of Oregon flag.

As Pauling was being introduced, an estimated seventy Black Student Union members and supporters filed into Gill Coliseum, the school’s basketball arena and the location for Pauling’s lecture. The BSU students subsequently took control of the dais, while Pauling remained seated. Mike Smith, the BSU president, and sophomore defensive back Rich Harr explained the group’s reasons for staging the interruption and also announced a boycott of athletic events that would start that weekend.  The speakers likewise called for white student support, noting that this was not just about the treatment of black student athletes, but of all students on campus. These sentiments were repeated later at a rally held in front of OSU’s Memorial Union.

After about twenty minutes, the protesters left the gym.  The large crowd that had assembled for Pauling’s talk gave a mixed response, though the majority of students applauded the BSU’s statements.  In an oral history interview conducted in 2011, OSU chemistry professor emeritus Ken Hedberg, a close friends of Pauling’s, remembered the participants as having been “very well behaved.”

A strong supporter of individual rights, Pauling was uncertain as to why Milton could not wear a beard and later noted that he never succeeded in receiving a straight answer from the university’s administration concerning the rationale for this policy. Pauling also expressed a belief that the sentiment displayed on his alma mater’s campus mirrored trends at other universities and that, as with many other institutions, the roots of these brewing conflicts lay mostly with the administration’s inability to recognize the problem and to take measures to fix it.

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In the days following the lecture sit-in, OSU President James Jensen took steps to reconcile with the BSU, but he did not meet with success. On March 1, the BSU announced the next in its series of actions to stand up for the rights of African American students at OSU.  Class boycotts followed on March 4with hundreds of students, faculty, and staff joining in support.  Athletic events were also boycotted both at OSU and elsewhere, and black athletes in the PAC-8 joined the protest by refusing to participate in games against OSU.

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On March 5, forty-seven black students – essentially the entire African American student population at the school – marched out of the main gate on the east side of OSU’s campus. The walkout began with a rally held in the Memorial Union that included a talk delivered by BSU president Mike Smith.  Speaking to a gathering of more than 1,000 faculty and students, Smith stressed that black students could no longer accept “the plantation logic” upheld by the administration and athletic department at OSU, a “hallowed institution of racism.”  Reporting on these events the next day, the Scab Sheet suggested that the OSU walkout was the first of its kind at an American college or university.

The Oregon State BSU chapter was joined in the walkout by over 100 members of the University of Oregon’s Black Student Union, who chartered buses and drove up to Corvallis to participate in solidarity.  There was also a rally held in sympathy at Portland State University to support the actions on OSU’s campus.  The president of PSU’s Black Student Union spoke at the rally and condemned OSU’s “policy of tradition” as being “not in accord with what’s going on today.”

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African American students walking off the OSU campus, March 5, 1969.

On March 6 the OSU Faculty Senate convened and passed an amended version of an “Administrative Proposal” that had been drafted by the school’s Office of Minority Affairs. This proposal included the creation of a Commission on Human Rights and Responsibilities.

The following day, three students withdrew from the university to seek education elsewhere. In response, the Faculty Senate met again to declare an emergency, an action which allowed the students who withdrew to receive an incomplete on their transcripts rather than a failing grade. Faculty members at the University of Oregon also met around this time to consider a proposal that would allow black students from OSU to be admitted as expediently as possible, should they choose to pursue their education at the university.

In an editorial, the Scab Sheet expressed a lack of surprise that the black students had left. After all,

Arrayed against them was a coalition of the University administration, the Athletic Department, the various athletic supporters, white athletes, Chamber of Commerce and alumni.

Furthermore, the university had earned a reputation for being ill-prepared to deal with minority students, and had compiled a record of inaction in handling problems of this sort. In fact, as explained by the president of the Associated Students of OSU, inaction seemed to be the university’s current formal policy.  Indeed, one year before, the university had turned back over $100,000 in federal funds that had been earmarked for the recruitment of minority students.  In the view of the Scab Sheet, the situation had deteriorated “to the point that blacks could maintain pride and self-respect only by disassociating themselves completely from Oregon State University.”

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The departure of many black students from OSU’s campus in 1969 altered student demographics for many years to come and exacted lasting damage to the university’s reputation within multiple communities. With respect to athletics, Dee Andros was not able to convince a single African American player to join his 1970 recruiting class, and from 1971 to 1998, OSU’s football teams posting losing records, still the longest run of futility in the history of Division I football.

Fred Milton, whose refusal to shave his beard brought decades of tensions to a head, ultimately transferred to Utah State University. Milton later enjoyed a successful career at IBM and Liberty Mutual Insurance, before moving into the public sector as a civil servant working for the city of Portland and Multnomah County. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 62.

Though a painful moment in OSU history, the actions taken by the BSU in winter 1969 led to direct and meaningful changes on the Corvallis campus. Later that year, OSU established the Educational Opportunities Program, which was designed to help recruit and retain students of color. Three cultural centers were also established on campus, each a mechanism for creating community spaces for students of color and a platform for sharing these students’ experience with the broader university community.

The 1969 Black Student Union Walkout

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African American students leaving the OSU campus through its west gate, February 25, 1969.

[Ed Note: We recently received a collection of photographs documenting an important moment in the history of Oregon State University – a walkout of African American students led by OSU’s Black Student Union in winter 1969. While this is largely an OSU story, Linus Pauling did play a role in the event, which we’ll explore this week and next.]

The racial tensions that escalated throughout the 1960s and that made an imprint on universities all across the United States were evident on the campus of Oregon State University as well. In a description that accompanied a photo collection recently accessioned by the OSU Libraries Special Collections and Archives Research Center, photographer Gwil Evans, who was a Journalism professor at OSU at the time, provided some background on an event that served as a pivot point for race relations at Oregon State near the end of the 1960s.

In his notes, Evans explained that, on February 25, 1969, members of the OSU Black Student Union interrupted a convocation hosted by President James Jensen at OSU’s Gill Coliseum. The convocation, which was part of a series of events marking the university’s centenary, was to feature a speech by Linus Pauling, Oregon State’s most prominent alum.

The immediate cause of the interruption and subsequent protest was a demand issued by OSU’s football coach, Dee Andros, that one of his players, an African American student athlete named Fred Milton, shave his facial hair. This conflict arose in the context of a longer history of racial tensions on campus, as well as concurrent protests related to tuition hikes and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

There was also an uneasiness associated with the talk itself, both with respect to Pauling’s presence on campus as well as the way in which he was introduced to the large crowd that assembled for his lecture.  These issues dated back many years, stemming from a schism that had developed between Pauling and Oregon State in 1949, due to Pauling’s belief that Ralph Spitzer – a former graduate student of Pauling’s who was fired from his faculty position at Oregon State College – was let go due to his political beliefs.

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Ralph Spitzer.

Pauling had known Spitzer since serving as a Visiting Lecturer at Spitzer’s undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University, in 1937.  Spitzer then went on to complete his Ph.D at Caltech in 1941 under the general supervision of Pauling, and sometimes working directly for Pauling.  The two shared a strong mutual respect and often closed their letters with questions asking after wives, children, and general well-being.  Pauling ultimately helped Spitzer to secure research funding and a teaching position at Oregon State College by providing his pupil with a series of consistently glowing recommendations.

Once they had arrived in Corvallis, Spitzer and his wife Terry became increasingly interested in American social problems as well as a multitude of issues related to the atomic bomb.  This concern in matters well beyond the teaching of chemistry, coupled with Ralph and Terry’s lack of hesitation in voicing their opinions, ultimately resulted in Spitzer’s firing by OSU President August Strand in February 1949.

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Ralph and Terry Spitzer, April 1949.

A letter that Spitzer had published in Chemical and Engineering News supporting Trofim Lysenko’s evolutionary theory of vernalization and, more broadly, Soviet science, provided a useful excuse for the OSC administration to deny renewal of his contract.  Although this was, on a technical level, an acceptable action for the president to take, since Spitzer was not tenured and he was not fired for explicitly political reasons, word of the incident quickly spread across campus and the region.

One of Spitzer’s immediate responses upon being informed of his impending dismissal was to write to Pauling seeking his help.  He also asked for a trial before the American Chemical Society (ACS), which refused to become involved in the incident despite the fact that Pauling himself was president at the time.

Nonetheless, after studying the details of the situation, Pauling wrote to President Strand and informed him that, although he did not hold the same beliefs as Spitzer, he believed his former student was certainly entitled to harbor opinions of this sort, and that OSC needed to honor them as a matter of academic freedom and respect for the principles of democracy.  Speaking as an OSC alumnus, fellow chemist, educator, American, and president of the ACS, Pauling urged Strand to reconsider his decision to fire Spitzer.

Strand responded to Pauling forcefully, writing that

if by this action, Oregon State College has lost your respect and support, all I can say is that your price is too high.  We’ll have to get along without your aid.

And so it was that Pauling did not engage with his alma mater until December 1966, five years after Strand had retired from his post

Though the ice between Pauling and OSU had been broken a couple years prior, the situation remained awkward as he arrived on campus for the centenary lecture series. Of particular note, Strand’s successor as OSU President, James Jensen, elected not to introduce Pauling. Instead, Bert Christensen, who was chair of the OSU Chemistry department, was asked to fill this role. This decision was far from customary for a visitor of Pauling’s magnitude and was viewed by many as an affront.

Pauling himself made note of being surprised upon learning of this breach in normal protocol.  He was far more surprised when Christiansen’s introduction was abruptly interrupted by the president of the Black Student Union, the details of which we’ll explore next week.

Becoming Dr. Pauling

Pauling posing at lower campus, Oregon Agricultural College, ca. 1917.

Pauling posing at lower campus, Oregon Agricultural College, ca. 1917.

Linus Pauling’s 114th birthday, which was observed last weekend, dovetails nicely with the seventh anniversary of the creation of this blog, which we celebrate today. Milestones of this sort tend to get us thinking about our connection with Pauling here at Oregon State University and the transformative experience that he enjoyed as an undergraduate, more than ninety years ago.  Though he left Oregon in 1922 and would never reside in his home state again, the roots of the Linus Pauling who would deeply impact so many corners of twentieth century history can be concretely traced back to his youth in the Beaver state and, importantly, to his tenure as an undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College.


During Pauling’s teenage years, questions regarding his future and the feasibility of professional training began entering his mind. As he weighed his options, Pauling had several things to consider. Of primary importance was the absence of his father, Herman, who had died in 1909, leaving the family’s financial situation teetering on the brink and erasing a vital male mentor from young Linus’s life. Though plagued with emotional insecurities, and despite being forced to hold a job from an early age to help supplement the family income, Linus still managed to discover his true passion, chemistry, as a thirteen year old high school freshman.

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In a 1954 interview, Pauling credited Miss Pauline Geballe, a teacher at Portland’s Washington High School, for having helped him to discover his love for chemistry. Always a precocious child, Pauling began seizing every opportunity to learn more once his interest was sparked, and he took as many math and science courses as he could while in high school. Though a success at Washington, he knew that there was still much more to learn. At the time, chemistry was a booming professional field in the United States, and Pauling was aware that pursuing a degree in that area would pay off financially while hopefully satisfying his intellectual curiosity.

And yet, as he pondered his future, Pauling’s internal dialogue was haunted by his lingering insecurities. Believing that a college education was a privilege reserved for competent individuals, he at times felt unworthy of an opportunity of this sort. Eventually Pauling was able to overcome his fears and enroll at Oregon Agricultural College (OAC, currently Oregon State University), the state’s land grant institution and, realistically, the only college that he could afford. (Tuition was free for Oregon residents, and student fees amounted to around $10 per term, depending on the courses that one took.)

Fear flooded Pauling’s mind as the time came to face a new and unfamiliar environment. A month and a day before entering OAC, Pauling wrote in his diary:

Paul Harvey is going to OAC to study chemistry – Big manly Paul Harvey, beside whom I pale into insignificance. Why should I enjoy the same benefits he has, when I am so unprepared, so unused to the ways of man? I will not be able on account of my youth and inexperience, to do justice to the courses and the teaching placed before me.

Paul Harvey, as seen in the 1919 Beaver Yearbook.

Paul Harvey, as seen in the 1919 Beaver Yearbook.

It is interesting to note that finances – though a logical worry for someone in Pauling’s situation – are not what seemed to have troubled him the most. More salient is the link between experience, or “manliness,” and the benefits of an education. Pauling began college at the age of 16 and he clearly thought of his youth as an obstacle that put him at a disadvantage. OAC, however, gave Pauling more than academic knowledge; it changed the way that he thought about himself. Rather than asking why he should enjoy the benefits of a higher education, Pauling left OAC brimming with confidence, in search of new opportunities as a professional and as an intellectual.


Young Pauling, ca. late 1910s.

Young Pauling, ca. late 1910s.

To think that Pauling began his academic experience as a timid and uncertain individual may come as somewhat of a surprise; particularly so because Pauling is now remembered as an outspoken, larger-than-life figure. From the vantage point of today one might also suggest that, as he entered college, Pauling should not have felt like he lacked experience. He had, after all, just about exhausted most of the employment and educational opportunities then available to a young man of high school age. Quite early on in life, Pauling had been given the responsibility of watching the family drugstore whenever his father needed to be absent. Later on, in his free time, Pauling and his friends devised any number of new schemes to remain employed, even seriously contemplating the possibility of opening a private chemical laboratory. And in school, Pauling seized every opportunity to broaden his horizons.

Looking into the records from Pauling’s undergraduate years, one might surmise that his feelings of unworthiness were overcome largely because of the OAC experience itself. In college he would develop his character and identity.  And he would escape the shell of the boy who lost his father at the age of eight and who was raised by a harried mother whom, in his later estimation, didn’t understand him very well.


"A prodigy, yet in his teens."

“A prodigy, yet in his teens.”

As the young Pauling settled in at Oregon Agricultural College, he found himself first overwhelmed by the diversity of courses that were required of chemical engineering students and, eventually, dissatisfied with the quality of coursework that was offered. Pauling realized pretty quickly, however, that he “deserved” to be in college as the successes that he had enjoyed in his high school courses continued in the OAC classrooms and labs. It is also clear that, by the time Pauling graduated, students and professors alike recognized his academic talent: OAC’s 1922 yearbook refers to Pauling, by then a senior, as “a prodigy, yet in his teens.”

By the time that he had graduated, Pauling’s overwhelming sense of his academic experience was that of dissatisfaction with the limitations from which OAC suffered at the time. Students were required to learn only the basics of chemical engineering and most of his professors lacked professional experience in the chemical industry. Most of the department’s professors did not have a doctorate, and of those who claimed a post-graduate education, at least one was lying.

Known then as the "Chem Shack," OSU's refurbished Furman Hall now houses the College of Education.

Known then as the “Chem Shack,” OSU’s refurbished Furman Hall now houses the College of Education.

There were faculty members at OAC, however, who were aware that professions in the sciences were changing and that both a research infrastructure and a chemical industry based in the United States were on the ascendance. OAC professors like Floyd Rowland did their best to expose their students to the latest findings and research methodologies in the field. Indeed, Rowland, the head of the chemical engineering program, so impacted his students that nine out of the twelve in Pauling’s graduating class went on to pursue post-graduate education – at that time, a near unimaginable success. So while Pauling’s hunger for an academic challenge was not quenched as an undergraduate, he surely began to discover his true potential at OAC, and he had at least a few people on campus helping him down that path.


Pauling with a few of his Gamma Tau Beta fraternity brothers.  Pauling, at left, wears his "rook lid," required apparel for all OAC freshman boys at that time. Ca. 1917.

Pauling with a few of his Gamma Tau Beta fraternity brothers. Pauling, at left, wears his “rook lid,” required apparel for all OAC freshman boys at that time. Ca. 1917.

Concerning the social side of Pauling’s undergraduate experience, it is known from his letters and reflections in later years that his involvement in the fraternity system was very important to the development of his personality. Pauling credited the OAC Chapter of Delta Upsilon for bringing him out of the isolation from his peers that he had felt as a child and had initially experienced upon moving to Corvallis.

His involvement in the Greek system began when he was invited to join Gama Tau Beta. Pauling later suggested that this likely came about because the house needed to bolster its grade point average and knew that Pauling would provide a big boost. Whatever the reason for Pauling’s invitation, he joined and he greatly benefited from the company of new found brothers.

Over time Pauling became a house leader. One of his main goals is this capacity was to broaden the connections of his fraternity by proposing that the house join a nationwide brotherhood, the Delta Upsilon fraternity. Once his house brothers accepted the proposition, Pauling almost single-handedly took care of moving the transition forward. In his later years, Pauling discussed the impact that fraternity life had made on his college experience, noting that

up until the time that I became a member of Gamma Tau Beta there was no one who strove to teach me how to get along with my fellow human beings.

So while Pauling was discovering his academic and professional potential through his classroom experience at OAC, his shyness was also being overcome by the social mentorship that he received from his fraternity brothers.  When he left Corvallis, Pauling was well on his way to becoming the confident individual that many came to know over the ensuing decades.


A very early - perhaps the earliest - photo of Ava Helen Miller and Linus Pauling together, 1922.

A very early – perhaps the earliest – photo of Ava Helen Miller and Linus Pauling together, 1922.

OAC provided a wealth of opportunities for Pauling to cultivate his talents and discover his potential, but probably the most important outcome of his undergraduate experience was the relationship that he developed with Ava Helen Miller.

As we’ve seen, Pauling’s academic prowess was noted by students and faculty alike, so much so that, during his junior year, Pauling was hired as an instructor and assigned to teach freshman-level chemistry. He was eighteen years old at the time.

On January 6, 1922, Linus entered a classroom nervous, but basically ready, to teach a class of Home Economics majors. The era being what it was, this class consisted entirely of female students. Feeling a need to establish his authority from early on, Pauling decided to ask a tough question. He ran his finger down the registration sheet, looking for someone to call on in response to the inquiry, “what do you know about ammonium hydroxide…Miss Miller?”  Ava Helen responded with a quite satisfactory answer – the class had studied this compound during the previous term – and thus began a relationship that steadily developed into a romance. In the months that followed, the connection between the two quickly developed and, before long, the young couple was engaged.

Posing together on graduation day, 1922.

Posing together on graduation day, 1922.

Linus’s early relationship with Ava is of notable importance because it bridges two periods in his career: the end of the OAC chapter and the beginning of his long run at Caltech. Linus graduated from OAC in June 1922 and moved on to Pasadena while Ava Helen stayed in Corvallis for more schooling, the couple’s desire to wed temporarily squelched by both sets of parents. Separated for one year, the two wrote to each other nearly every day, and in these letters Linus expressed his true self to Ava Helen in a way he had not done (and never would do) with anybody else.

Later on, in marriage, the two would inspire each other to take their work even further. Ava Helen’s interest in world affairs would propel Linus’s awareness of the need for peace activism, and Linus’s dedication would inspire Ava Helen to become a leader in countless social justice organizations. As a friend of the duo wrote in 1960 “the Paulings don’t stand in each other’s shadow, they walk in each other’s light.”  For us, as we reflect on the milestones of today, it is gratifying to know that this hugely important couple owed their introduction to the little land grant school in Oregon’s Willamette Valley – a fertile space then, as now, for the transformation of bright young minds.